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Analysing the new face of disaster response

Mar 31, 2011

Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies analyses how the humanitarian community and emerging volunteer and technical communities worked together in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Commissioned by UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, the report recommends ways to improve coordination between these two groups in future emergencies.

Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies

 

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Each major humanitarian disaster rips open a gap between the past and present, between what once was and what is now.

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck less than a mile off the coast of Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince in January 2010 is one of the largest sudden onset emergencies the Western hemisphere has ever seen, and it struck its poorest country. Damage from the quake collapsed poorly constructed housing and iconic government buildings alike, frequently crushing those within. It also created a chasm between what the international humanitarian community knew about Haiti prior to the quake and the reality that faced them in the quake’s aftermath.

The race to fill this information gap—to assess the damage and plan a response—is a dynamic familiar to seasoned responders to major sudden onset emergencies. After a large-scale disaster, there is always a massive effort to collect and analyse large volumes of data and distill from the chaos the critical information needed to target humanitarian aid most efficiently. But the response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was different.

For the first time, members of the community affected by the disaster issued pleas for help using social media and widely available mobile technologies. Around the world, thousands of ordinary citizens mobilised to aggregate, translate, and plot these pleas on maps and to organise technical efforts to support the disaster response. In one case, hundreds of geospatial information systems experts used fresh satellite imagery to rebuild missing maps of Haiti and plot a picture of the changed reality on the ground. This work—done through Open Street Map—became an essential element of the response, providing much of the street-level mapping data that was used for logistics and camp management.

The international humanitarian system was not tooled to handle these two new information fire hoses—one from the disaster-affected community and one from a mobilised swarm of global volunteers. This report seeks to understand and make recommendations for how to adapt to this new reality where collective action can lead to collective intelligence.

This work will require partnership and dialogue. Humanitarian organisations have amassed deep wisdom and experience from decades of work in the field. Yet new voices are opening the possibility of closer interactions with communities affected by disasters. And new partners are offering faster, more effective means of analysing an ever-increasing volume and velocity of data. The challenge ahead is how to create an effective interface between these resources, and create an ecosystem where each actor understands its role.

It will not be easy. Volunteer and technical communities (V&TCs) like Open Street Map, Ushahidi, Sahana, and Crisis Mappers approach problems in ways that challenges the status quo. As organiations, some V&TCs are struggling to attain financial sustainability, especially when asked to respond to successions of major disasters.

This report recommends a five-part framework for addressing these challenges:

1. A neutral forum to surface areas of agreement and conflict between international humanitarian system and the V&TCs.

2.  An innovation space where new tools and practices can be explored as experiments, allowing for the failures that are a necessary component of learning new ways of working.

3. A deployable field team with a mandate to deploy the best available tools and practices from the V&TCso the field.

4. A research and training consortium to evaluate the work in the field and to train humanitarians and
V&TCs alike in the best practices for information management in a humanitarian context.

5. A clear operational interface that outlines ways of collaborating before and during emergencies, with agreed procedures for communication, shared standards for data exchange and an understanding of roles, priorities and capabilities.

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